Pacific Highway 101 is one of the best road trips you can ever dream of – 1,650-mile (2,655 km) of scenic views, contouring the West Coast of the United States of America. It goes from the northwest tip of the US at Port Townsend in Seattle, all the way down to Dana Point in Southern California, crossing all the three western American states – California, Oregon and Seattle. In this article we’ll only cover the CA portion, which is considered by many the best road trip in the US, and one of the best in the world. But hey, if you’re a big adventurer and you have all the time in the world, a road trip along the whole Pacific Coast route is a must!
Ok, back to our sunny California. First of all, let’s get some facts straight. California’s coast line is 865 miles long. California’s Pacific Coast Highway is 656 miles long, and it goes from Dana Point (Orange County) all the way to Leggett (Mendocino County). If you just wanna drive the Pacific Highway 1 from San Francisco to Los Angeles, that is 480 miles and it takes about ten hours if you were to go straight, without stopping, but why would you? Please don’t! Take your time to enjoy this amazing trip. Again, this is one of the best road trips in the whole world, for God’s sake! TAKE YOUR TIME! At least a week or two, if you wanna do the full Pacific Highway and explore the major cities – San Francisco, Santa Cruz, Monterey, Carmel, San Luis Obisbo, Santa Barbara and Los Angeles. Pacific Coast Highway (PCH) is a marvel of human effort that covers most of California’s beautiful coastlines. Work on the legendary PCH started first in 1912, but really got rolling in the 1930’s. By the time the construction was completed, (in the 1950’s), it opened possibilities for people to travel from South to North, the travel industry boomed in this heavenly piece of earth, and the concept of road tripping came fully to life.
What is so special that you need so much time on this road trip? Well, besides the breathtaking coastal views, this road winds around huge national parks, through giant redwoods, past cute little towns and villages you’ve never heard of, but you’ll remember them forever. You need to stop from time to time, (you’ll be tempted to stop every 5, 10 min), get out of the car and take in the beauty of this place and explore it on foot. Go hiking, camping, glamping, wine tasting, surfing, or just chill by the beach and observe the marine mammals and Californian condors. No matter if you’re an active, outdoorsy expert or a quiet traveler who just likes to chill and take great photos, you’ll have the best time of your life on this road trip! GUARANTEED!
Btw, this famous route has many different names, depending on which section you’re talking about. For example there is State Route 1—or Highway 1; the southern part of the road is Pacific Coast Highway (or PCH), while the northern section is known as Shoreline Highway. There is also Cabrillo Highway, Coast Highway, Pacific Coast Highway, and other denominations, but we should probably stop here before it gets too confusing, and let’s go back to our trip.
So you can just do San Francisco – Los Angeles if you only have a week. But if you don’t wanna miss all the gems in NorCal, we highly recommend you do the whole Pacific Coast Highway, (or whatever you wanna call it), and give yourself at least 10 days/ ideally two weeks, so you can fully explore everything. The best way to do this is to drive southward, so you’ll be on the ocean side of the road, which offers better views and easier access to vista points; (keep in mind there are hundreds of vista points, and all of them are on the ocean side). So let’s get it started!
It has become a tradition for many to start this fabulous California PCH road trip with a drive through the famous Chandelier Drive-Thru Tree in Leggett (Mendocino County). Then turn on Highway 1, (this portion is inland, and goes through some of the tallest trees), until a point when you’ll see the ocean and the name of the road becomes Shoreline Highway, (just another name for CA Pacific Coast Highway).
First town you’ll soon come across is Mendocino, (about 50 miles from where you’ve started). The Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens it’s definitely worth a visit for its beautiful dahlias and roses. You might wanna book a room and explore this Northern CA town. A mecca for artists and writers, Mendocino was originally established as a logging port in the 1850s. Also called “Spendocino”, it is largely an upscale vacation place for visitors from San Francisco and vicinities. And for the New England lovers, this is the closest you’ll get on the West coast! Enjoy the whole afternoon in this quaint coastal town, have a nice quiet dinner at Trillium Cafe , and in the morning get back on the road.
Head towards San Francisco, which is 190 miles of coastal road, so it’ll take 4-6 hours to reach your destination. Take your time and enjoy the road. It is beautiful. You should consider at least 3, 4 days to explore San Francisco; if you wanna explore its vicinity then you’ll need a whole week. Small towns like Sausalito and Tiburon (also called Italy of the West Coast), are a must see! And when it comes to San Francisco – mhhh, where to begin???
San Francisco is a diverse, multi-cultural city, filled with lush settings, which makes it an incredible place for nature lovers, shoppers, foodies, artists, bookworms, techies, and more.
While there is A LOT to do & to see in San Francisco, if you’re there for only 3, 4 days, here are a few must do’s: start by crossing the 1.7 mile-long Golden Gate, (by foot or by bike) , and then explore its 1,000+ acres of park; you should also book a seaplane tour to see the Golden Gate Bridge from above. Also ride a cable car, walk down the famous twisty Lombard Street, go to Chinatown, (the oldest in the country), explore the Embarcadero and Fisherman’s Wharf – and get an ice cream sundae at Ghirardelli. For amazing views go to Twin Peaks or the top of Coit Tower, and make sure to check out the Painted Ladies, also known as the “Full House.” For nightlife and dining, get lost into the Mission district, and enjoy all that San Francisco has to offer.
San Francisco is huge in culture, arts and live music, but if you wanna explore that aspect, then you’ll need a whole week, or just come back another time. You’ll need half a day only for The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA), and there are so many other great museums to explore. Then also, how can you miss a trip to America’s most notorious prison? If you’ve come this far, Alcatraz is a must! And so is a day-trip to the wine country north of the Golden Gate Bridge.
Heading South on the Pacific Coast Highway towards Big Sur, this part of the road has the most beautiful, scenic views, so hit the road early in the morning, because you’ll need to stop your car more often than you’d expect. As you drive through this dramatic coastal landscape contoured by mountains on the other side of the road, on your way to Big Sur you’ll cross a few amazing coastal villages & towns. Santa Cruz, Monterey and Carmel are towns you wanna park your car and explore on foot, so book a room in advance for each location and spend a full day & night. In fact, there is so much to see & do in Monterey & Carmel, you might need more time. Start by exploring Cannery Row, Old Fisherman’s Wharf, and if you want more sea creatures visit the Monterey Bay Aquarium at the end of Cannery Row. And no, you can’t miss 17-Mile Drive & Pebble Beach! From wine tasting, dining, and shopping to outdoor activities, everything is within a 30-minute drive the most.
Santa Cruz is a friendly beach town with old-fashioned roller coasters, vintage shops and organic restaurants, amazing coastal views and redwood trees, and so much more. (For the film lovers – did you know the ’80s classic “The Lost Boys” was shot here?). Just a few minutes south of Santa Cruz you’ll find Capitola, California’s oldest seaside resort town, and boasts a Mediterranean flavor.
And then Carmel… Oh, Carmel is Heaven on Earth. Even though small in size, this idyllic town has everything – from stunning coastline with crescent-shaped beach and windswept trees, equally charming inland – see Carmel Valley, (just 13 miles from the coast), fantastic wine, lots of art, beautiful architecture with a subtle European feel and lots of things to do. The city was founded in 1904 as an art colony, (if you’re wondering why there are so many art galleries. Just in downtown Carmel there are about 75 galleries in only one square mile. Wow, right? This idyllic town nestled on the northern part of California’s central coastline has so much to offer you wanna spend a couple of days here too. You also need to go for a drive up in Carmel Highlands, and get in the most spectacular views. You’ll see Sharon Stone’s spectacular house from “Basic Instinct”. And while talking Hollywood – did you know that Oscar winning actor/ filmmaker Clint Eastwood was the Mayor of Carmel in the 80’s?
And now, here comes the best part of this whole trip: BIG SUR, which has some of the most jaw-dropping scenery. Located on California’s central coast, between Carmel and the small town of San Simeon, (home to the fabulous Hearst Castle), Big Sur offers some 90 miles of pristine beauty dominated by rugged beaches, redwoods and waterfalls. Every inch of it is overloaded with postcard appeal. Also known as the American Riviera, with incredible nature, small, quaint inns and large, luxury resorts, the classic drive through the windy roads of Big Sur on State Route 1 with a convertible car is a road trip you’ll never forget. Along the CA-1 there are lots of vista points, (there is literally one every 5, 10 minutes), and you’ll find that every stop seems more amazing than the last on the Big Sur coast.
Don’t miss: Pfeiffer Beach, the 80-feet tall McWay Falls, the famous Bixby Creek Bridge, (there is no way to drive through or out of Big Sur without crossing this 714-feet-long bridge); also visit Henry Miller’s memorial library, (who, like many other artists and writers, has called Big Sur his home for 15 years. You can go hiking, camping, beachcombing, watching migrating whales, sea otters and endangered California condors, (the largest birds in North America). Have a bite on the lofty patio at Nepenthe and take in the breathtaking views, or try Coast Big Sur for a quick bite & some local art. Lodging options are limited and very pricey here, so it is highly recommended to book way in advance. You can stay at the traditional Deetjen’s Inn, tucked-away on the edge of a redwood forest, or at the Ragged Point Inn and Resort. If you wanna try the best of the best/ and if money is not a problem, then you might wanna stay at Post Ranch Inn, (rooms range from $1,500 to 2,000), or Ventana, (where a room is approximately $3,500 – 4,000/ night).
Back on the road, heading South towards Pismo Beach, (120 miles from Big Sur), you’ll notice a dramatic change of scenery as soon as you’re out of the Big Sur area. The rugged beaches with mountains in the background are substituted with a more relaxed landscape, and you’ll notice a few degrees warmer… On your way, you’ll cross Cambria, Santa Lucia and San Simeon, (the latter being home of Hearst Castle, conceived by the publishing tycoon William Randolph Hearst.
Next – Morro Bay & San Luis Obisbo, both postcard coastal towns, definitely worth stopping your car and exploring. A little further inland is Paso Roble, a great California wine-hotspot. Part of San Luis Obispo County, this vibrant little town is a good excuse for a detour off Highway 1. The downtown area of Paso provides great eateries and plenty of cute cafes to refuel on coffee and snacks backup for the road.
Next, on your way to Santa Barbara you’ll pass through a few other worthy stopovers: Santa Ynez Valley (for more wine), the cute Danish village of Solvang, and Los Olivos for even more wine!
Back on the road heading towards the ocean, and shortly you’ll reach Santa Barbara, the quintessential Californian beach city with beautiful ocean views contoured by tall skinny palm trees, and the Santa Ynez mountains creating a dramatic backdrop. Known as the “American Riviera, Santa Barbara stands at the intersection of classic and modern. From picture-perfect beaches to incredible architecture, rich arts and culture scene, historical sights, museums, some of the best hotels and restaurants on the West Coast, and lots of good wine, you’ll love EVERYTHING Santa Barbara has to offer. It is well known that CA has some of the priciest real estate in the nation, and Santa Barbara is somewhere at the top of the list, being home to some of the biggest celebrities on the planet, including Oprah, Ellen, and most recently the Duke and Duchess of Sussex – Prince Harry and Meghan Markle.
As you exit Santa Barbara city, you’ll pass through a few more quaint little towns you’ve probably never heard of before, but you’ll remember them forever: Goleta, Summerland and Carpinteria, (which are still part of Barbara county).
After Ventura, CA-1 heads inland and merges with Highway 101. If you stay on 101, as you’re getting closer to the City of Angels, (70 miles away), you’ll soon experience LA traffic first hand. If you wanna get back on the coast, you’ll soon come across signs pointing towards Highway-1, (our famous Pacific Coast Highway). Take the turn, drive 15 min on Highway-1 inland, and after Point Mogu you’ll be back driving by the ocean. You’ll now notice the contrast between the northern rugged beaches towered by the mountains and enchanting Redwood forests, versus the warm, chilled southern beaches lined with palm trees.
When you get to Malibu, pull over at Point Dume State Beach and enjoy the warm SoCal sunshine. Here expect to spot whales, dolphins, sea lions and harbor seals sharing the ocean with surfers with blond hair and Baywatch bodies. Enjoy the sunset by the beach or dine at the fancy Nobu; (chances are you’ll be sitting across from an A-Lister; or more than one). Lodging options are pretty limited in Malibu, (and very pricey), so you might wanna book a night at one of the many beautiful hotels in Santa Monica. That way in the morning you can go for a jog by the beach and explore the historic Santa Monica Pier.
Then head inland towards LA, where you can sample the city’s limitless choices of landmarks, movie studios, hip bars and restaurants, some of the fanciest hotels and lots of museums. Book a room for a couple of nights in a chique boutique hotel in centrally located West Hollywood, so you’re close to all the good bars and restaurants, close to Hollywood, so you can go the next day on a stroll on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and spot your favorite stars on the sidewalk; (there are about 2,700 stars all together, so don’t try to take a picture with each one of them). Then go for a (window) shopping session on Rodeo Drive, have a drink at The Beverly Wilshire, (or even book a room; they offer a Pretty Woman package, if you wanna go for the full experience).
Now continuing your coastal trip, the Southernmost part of Pacific Coast Highway has the most idyllic beaches in SoCal. The PCH ends after Dana Point, a small city in Orange County, nestled on a cliffside, halfway between Los Angeles and San Diego. Finish your trip in Laguna Beach, a perfect-postcard beach town Mother nature was incredibly generous with. Explore its pristine coastline which consists of more than 30 coves and beaches spread across 7 miles, book a whale-watching cruise, and on your way back explore some of the city’s rich arts & culture scene.
And there you have it, the Californian Pacific Coast, from North to South. Whether you decide to do the whole ride in one long shot, or break it into a couple of separate trips, it’s safe to end this long article with the same idea we started with: the PCH is one of the best road trips in the world!